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The practice of non-therapeutic circumcision, which is rooted in antiquity, and started in the 19th century for alleged medical reasons, predates the inauguration of the human rights era in 1945. The advent of and recognition of human rights for all (including patients) has profoundly altered medical ethics and the acceptability of non-therapeutic child circumcision.
Children, unlike adults, possess two sets of human rights. UNICEF says:
Children and young people have the same general human rights as adults and also specific rights that recognize their special needs. Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights.
The era of human rights may be considered to have started with the formation of the United Nations at San Francisco in 1945 because the Charter of the United Nations requires that body to promote universal respect and observance of human rights for all — without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.
The General Assembly of the United Nations, acting to fulfill its obligations under the Charter, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The UDHR recognizes the rights of all to security of the person (Article 3), to freedom from inhuman, cruel, or degrading treatment (Article 5), and the rights of motherhood and childhood to special protection (Article 25.2), all of which are applicable to circumcision.
The General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1967. That Covenant, which is international law, has several provisions, which are applicable to the circumcision of children.
Application of the ICCPR to non-therapeutic circumision of children
Articles 7, 9, and 24 are applicable to male and female non-therapeutic circumcision of children. Each nation that is a state-party under the ICCPR, which took effect in 1976, pledges to enforce those rights for its citizens.
Article 7 provides:
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular, no one shall be subjected without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation.
Article 9 provides:
Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person.
Article 24 provides:
Every child shall have, without any discrimination as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, national or social origin, property or birth, the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, society and the State.
Specific children's rights applicable to non-therapeutic circumcision
The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on 20 November 1989. The CRC does not replace the ICCPR, which had been previously adopted by the General Assembly. The ICCPR already provides certain rights to children. The CRC adds additional rights that children need for protection due to their immaturity and vulnerability. The two documents must be read together to receive the complete picture. Unfortunately, many seem to believe that rights provided by the CRC are the only human rights of children, but that view is incorrect.
International Human Rights Law and the Circumcision of Children (DOC Genital Integrity Statement), ResearchHub, Doctors Opposing Circumcision. Retrieved 5 November 2019.
Child rights and why they matter, UNICEF. Retrieved 5 November 2019.
- Charter of the United Nations. (1945). Retrieved 4 November 2019.
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 71 (1948)., United Nations. (1948). Retrieved 4 November 2019.
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, United Nations. (1967). Retrieved 4 November 2019.
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (PDF), United Nations. (20 November 1989). Retrieved 6 November 2019.